Silence On The Sidelines: An MLB Insider's 'Manifesto' On Youth Sports
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Imagine you're in a stressful situation, trying to do something really difficult, and a bunch of your friends and family are watching, screaming at the top of their lungs while you're trying to do it. My guest, Mike Matheny, says that's exactly what parents do to their kids all the time in youth sports. Matheny's a former big-league catcher who spent 13 years in the majors, winning four Gold Glove Awards. He's now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, but he's almost as well-known for a code of behavior he wrote after he retired from the big leagues and agreed to coach his son's youth baseball team. The rules were for the parents, who, Matheny says, are the biggest problem in youth sports.
We asked Matheny to come in and talk to us about kids and parents in youth sports, his playing career, what it's like to manage in the big leagues and about his book, "The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager's Views On Success In Sports And Life."
Well, Mike Matheny, welcome to FRESH AIR. In 2008, you left the game, finally, after some concussions and were asked to coach a youth baseball team while your 10-year-old kid was going to be on it. And you write that you - before you did it, you really did some thinking about what kind of a program you wanted to write - run - and wrote this long letter to parents. And it begins with you saying that the biggest problem in youth sports is the parents. How do you want parents to behave at a game? What do you tell them?
MIKE MATHENY: Well, we went overboard, and we asked the parents not to do anything. It was almost a trial run. And I knew it was going to be a stretch because, you know, a lot of the time, your social structures kind of revolved around what's going on with your kids and their sports, and it becomes your social group. And it almost - at times, part of the problem is it defines you in who you are by how well your kids play in youth sports.
And so we just asked the parents to step away from that and really just be a silent source of encouragement. And we would give them some things to work on because it's very, very important what they're doing at home and just playing some catch and going out and having a good time. We encouraged them to take their kids to go get some ice cream after a game, even when we lost. But mostly, during the game, do whatever you could just to take yourself out of the picture. The kids don't necessarily need you to be yelling words of encouragement at the top of your lungs.
And this is really coming from a number of studies where they go and they interview collegiate, high school and even lower-level athletes and asking them, what do you want your parents to do at the game? And the overwhelming answer is absolutely nothing. And it comes back to, what's the goal? This is about the kid. This is not about the parents.
DAVIES: And when your parent is shouting the encouraging thing like, come on Johnny (ph), you can do it, you're saying that actually - they got enough pressure that they put on themselves.
MATHENY: Well, just think about, you know, you had a group of people that you care about most, and you're getting ready to go make a big presentation for work, and someone's yelling at the top of their lungs, you can do this; you can do this; you can do this. And all of a sudden, it doesn't work out. You feel like you let everybody down. You know, these kids put so much pressure - and this stuff's tough. And whether it is learning an instrument or it's playing a sport, trying to get that right and do it perfectly to everybody's expectations is tough.
And I'll take the game of baseball - you know, hitting that round ball with a round bat and doing that consistently, you're going to fail 70 percent of the time. Even the best players do. And in the meanwhile, you're trying to please your teammates. You're trying to please your coach. And then you got the most important person in your world back there screaming at you, and you think, if I don't get this done, I disappoint them. And that's when you get to the point where these kids just check out. And they say, listen; I just can't get this thing right. I might as well go back to my room and play some videogames where nobody bothers me.
DAVIES: One of the things you tell parents in the letter and you did when you met with them is, we are not going to have good umpiring. Why do you tell them that?
DAVIES: Seems kind of obvious in a way, doesn't it?
MATHENY: No. Well, most of these kids, especially at the lower levels, you know, the umpires sometimes are only a couple years older, and most of them had a crash course over a weekend where they spent two hours vaguely learning the rules and then expected to be able to do this in real-time without any experience at all. Most of the time, you're just looking for volunteers - somebody that can act like an umpire just to let the game go properly.
And without fail - and sometimes, it's deserved. There are some umpires that do get it wrong, but the majority of them are just trying to go out and do it the best they can. They just aren't real qualified. And I'll tell you right now, you know, we yell at our umpires all the time. And it's probably a bad example for us to make, but this is our livelihood. And we have...
DAVIES: We, meaning in the big leagues, you mean.
MATHENY: In the big leagues, correct. But in the big leagues, we understand that we have the best umpiring in the world, and they're still going to make mistakes 'cause they're human. And that's part of the game too, is the human element of it.
But we get to the point in the youth-league games where we just say it's not an option. And we do try to separate with what's going on professionally. Not to sound like hypocrites, but there is a difference, especially when we're trying to learn the game at the lower levels. But what we do know is that it's just not an option for our parents or for our coaches at the youth-league level.
And one way that we've enforced this and reinforced it, too, was to ask our parents, when they had free time, to go out and volunteer to be an umpire. And once you put those shoes on and you realize how hard that is, even for people who know the game well, they'll see it's not as easy as it looks. And I think it give you a little empathy to what some of these young umpires are going through.
DAVIES: Yeah. I've done it myself, and there's no way you get through a game without blowing a call that you know you blew.
DAVIES: Now, among the things that parents tend to do, which can be counterproductive or troubling, apart from yelling during the game, is call the coach and say, you know, my kid really should be batting third. Why do you have him at the bottom of the order? Or you know, that kid - my kid could play a better shortstop than that guy you've got out there. You had rules about that too, didn't you?
MATHENY: Yeah, we did. And that was something that I know has driven many coaches and many very good and qualified and well-intended coaches away from being involved as a coach anymore. And so that was another item that just kind of pointed it out at the beginning. And it's just - if you trust me to coach your kids, then let me do that job. And you have to trust, first of all, that I have their best interest in mind, there's no ulterior motive, that I'm not trying to self-promote. I'm not trying to promote my own kid. I just want to see these kids all grow.
Now, if you sign up for that, then that really takes away the freedom that you have to start guessing and second-guessing the decisions that I'm making. Now, yes, you're going to guard your kids. Absolutely be careful and watch what's going on. But as far as things like playing time, either you trust me, or you don't. And at that point, we kind of ended the discussion. And it went well for the most part, but absolutely was tried a couple times.
DAVIES: I like your description of some of the things you did with the kids. I mean, particularly in the early part of the season, you say you want to get to the point where you're winning, but you're really teaching them. Talk about some of the things you did with positions and lineup in the early weeks of the season.
MATHENY: Yeah. And this really does apply to kids that are just learning the game. And I have that 10-year-old kind of idea in my mind because that's the age that we started. And I know kids are starting even younger than that. I started tee-ball when I was 7, and that was basically just five or six games of going out. And I hardly remember what we did. It was just being together with our friends.
But really, at that age of 10, we started, you know, playing where kids are pitching against each other.
And I think it's how you define success and what were your goals. And our success and goals revolved around whether these kids wanted to show up to the next practice, whether these kids wanted to show up to the next game and at the end of the season, whether they wanted to play the game again. And that's how we defined what our success would be. And in the meanwhile, we're going to teach them a passion for the game. And I think you can only do that by exposing them to every part of the game.
And we went in with a 20-year plan in mind, that these are some kids that we're going to be committed to. And some are going to be really good at this game - some, not so much. But that's not our aim. Our aim is to be mentors, to be guides and to be resources and references for them to the point where I am right now with a lot of these boys. And I'm writing and calling college coaches and just admission boards and talking about these boys as people and not just baseball players. But at the time, I needed to earn their confidence. I needed to get them to understand that this is a extracurricular activity that should be fun.
And so to do that, we put them all over the field. I let left-handers catch if they wanted to catch. I put a left-hander at shortstop. I put a kid that had trouble ever throwing the ball anywhere near the plate - I threw him on the mound and - just to see if they had fun with it and then to challenge them and then give them some work. And that's where parents really came in. And we would give the parents and the young man some homework.
They needed to go home, and they needed to play catch. And they needed to throw so many pitches. And the parent needed to flip some Wiffle balls to the boy and try and get in so many swings and then see what kind of commitment level they had and match that together with their talents and then to see, you know, how far they could take it 'cause we're not shy about trying to get these kids to play as far as they can, but that's not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was to invest into them as people.
DAVIES: Mike Matheny is the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a former big-league catcher. He has a new book about his principles for managing youth baseball. It's called "The Matheny Manifesto." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Mike Matheny. He's the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a former big league catcher. He's written a book, in part, about his experiences managing youth baseball and the way he tries to deal with kids and parents. It's called "The Matheny Manifesto."
It was 2012, I guess, that you were picked to manage the St. Louis Cardinals - then, the defending World Series champion, right?
MATHENY: Correct, it was right after the 2011 season.
DAVIES: OK, all right - taking the place of a legendary figure in baseball, Tony La Russa. You had had no professional managing experience. Do you think that the letter to Little League parents, which had gotten some attention by then - do you think that helped you get the job?
MATHENY: You know, I actually talked to our general manager, and he had seen the letter online. It kind of went viral, especially in St. Louis. And he was aware of it, so I can't say that it didn't impact the way he thought in some way.
DAVIES: Right. You bring an approach to managing that you call servant leadership. Do you want to explain what that is?
MATHENY: Yeah, you know, I don't know why at the time - I really was only leading a family of five at the time. And I don't know why I was drawn to it. I had just finished my baseball career and was introduced to this idea of servant leadership, and it just rang so true with me and the places I'd been where I'd been impacted the most. And that was people serving other people and the leaders being humble enough to step outside themselves and realize the best way to lead is by serving - and almost that inverted org chart to where the guy at the top is really serving everyone that's supposed to be below him. And that made sense to me, whether it was baseball, whether it's business, and so it struck a chord. And I was right in the middle of really kind of studying this idea when this opportunity came about.
DAVIES: When I think of a big-league manager, I don't think of a servant. I think of a guy with his arms folded and this steely look in his eyes as he surveys his team in the field, being firm, decisive, sometimes loud, maybe even abusive. How does this work in baseball?
MATHENY: Well, I try to stay away from the abusive part, but the rest of it is true. I mean - but that's only a small portion of my job description. Yeah, there is a stoic nature of a presence that needs to happen for a manager, but the real impact that I'm able to have and anybody on our club - and especially our staff - is able to have is the in-between time. And that's in the clubhouse. That's when we're traveling on the road. That's when we're in our practices. It's our workouts before the game, and those are the opportunities for guys to find out whether this is about me or whether it's about them. And for me, to see the greatest impacts that people have had on my life is when they've invested into me. And if I know they care, they're going to get something extra out of me.
And I truly believe in the old saying that nobody cares what you have to say until they know that you care. And I've seen that work, and I've seen the opposite also, so that's an atmosphere that we've tried to create on our staff. We're not going to pull rank. We're going to figure out how to make people better by serving them better. And that - yeah, that kind of sounds fuzzy, you know, and kind of warm, and it's not anything except getting outside of yourself and your own intentions and your own ambitions and trying to make it about somebody else.
DAVIES: Now, you've spent - what? - 13 years as a catcher in the big leagues. Do I have that right?
MATHENY: That's right.
DAVIES: OK, now that means that - one of the big decisions a manager has to make is when to pull a pitcher. And so hundreds of times when you were a catcher, you would go out to the mound and hear these conversations - one of the - when the manager comes out, talks to the pitcher and asks him to give up the ball so he can bring in - somebody in from the bullpen. I wonder, over the years as you saw those conversations, were there - did you think, you know what? This is how I would do it. Did you see people - managers - making mistakes in communication that you felt like you wouldn't make or you'd want to do differently?
MATHENY: You know, Dave, the majority of the time those decisions are made before that manager ever gets out there. And there are other times it can be a reconnaissance mission where you go out and you can see just how badly this guy wants to stay in the game. You can look in their eye a little bit and see if they've got it or not, or if they're looking for a life preserver. And I think each manager I had, I always enjoyed getting out there before he got there just so I could see the whole thing go into play and see - is he really testing this pitcher right now, or has he already made up his mind? Is he just stalling? And I think that's why a lot of times you see catchers transition into this manager position a little more seamlessly - because there's so many different things that go into the thought process of a catcher besides just my space right now, my responsibility. A catcher has to have of his hands kind of on a lot of different things.
DAVIES: Oh, yeah. Now, I recognize that. Even if the manager has made the decision when he gets to the mound, and it's often made because the manager usually doesn't come out to the mound unless there's a decision made to change pitchers, how you communicate with the pitcher probably matters, doesn't it?
MATHENY: Yeah, I think so. And, you know, some people take a lot of pride in how they do communicate. And you know, there was another era, too, that was just old school and rough and gruff. And the only communication was a couple grunts, and there were some heated conversations out there, too, just two guys flat yelling at each other right there on national TV. And those were always entertaining, but, you know, I did know that, you know, there was normally negative repercussions that came down the line once that interaction did happen.
But for the most part, there was never a whole lot - usually your veteran ace, your guy that's been around a long time, he'd have a little more say. The rest of the guys, they were really kind of at the mercy of whatever the pitching coach or the manager thought at the time and whatever communication was typically pretty short.
DAVIES: All right. Let's just play - role-play a little bit. I'm on the mound. You're coming out to get me, two guys on. I can get this guy out, coach. I know I can get him out, Mike. What do you tell me?
MATHENY: I would - if I had already had my mind made up, I'd tell you, yeah, I know you could, but, you know, you had a rough time getting the two guys out that are on base right now. So we need to get you some help. And typically, I'll be honest with them, and I'll give them a reason. If they've just thrown too many pitches, I just didn't like what I saw, I'll tell them. I said, listen, I believe that you could get this next guy out, but right now we're in a bind, and we need some help.
But there's not a lot of that conversation that goes on, believe it or not. Once again, I have maybe two veteran pitchers that are starters, and it's typically the starters that are trying to stay in the game a little longer. They will give me kind of a lobbying position, but I know it before I ever get there. So I'm either - once again, I'm, you know, on a reconnaissance where I'm just seeing what they're thinking, and I've had them talk me into it before. And I'll tell them, hey, you're about your pitch count. You've got five pitches left. You better get us these two outs in five pitches, or I'm coming back to get you, and then they're prepared for when I come out the second time.
DAVIES: All right. Arguing with umpires is part of a manager's job. What's your approach to that?
MATHENY: You know, this video review's kind of taken that art away. And not that I was never very good at it 'cause I hadn't been around this gig very long, but with the opportunity to go to replay at the big-league level, there really isn't much of it. You kind of go out, and you have an awkward conversation with an umpire that you're kind of frustrated with that you have to be out there anyhow because you thought he missed the call. But in the meanwhile, instead of getting all angry, you're kind of asking him if he wants a cup of tea and how his family's doing while we're waiting for the video process to go through. And once we get that information, then we either take it to video or we tell him, hey, you know what? I was wrong. You got it right. I'll go back to where I was.
So - but there is still a little bit of an art of that between the managers and the home plate umpire trying to get the kind of strike zone that you want. So it happens every night, and we're trying to manipulate to get better pitches called and making sure that we're being treated fairly.
DAVIES: And are there times you want to get ejected? When would you want to be ejected?
MATHENY: (Laughter) Well, yeah, that happens. Typically, it's when I know my team needs to see me stand up for them, and they just got to know that I'll fight for them. And most of the time, they're being wronged by an umpire in their mind and when our team has been beaten down a little bit. And you can tell that our morale's down because through 162 games, you're going to have those stretches where things just aren't quite right. And they need to see some life. And believe it or not, I mean, there are dull days, even in the big leagues, to where it just - it's almost monotonous. And these guys do need to show up with a very workmanlike attitude. But when it turns into bland and stale, every once in a while they need a little kick, and I believe a manager can bring that. And lot of times, unfortunately, it's the interaction between an umpire and the manager.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Now, I know that you're a devout Christian. You adhere to certain principles in your life. Is it harder to get an umpire to toss you when you won't use profanity?
MATHENY: (Laughter) It is. It is. And you may recall the story in the book when I - my very first ejection, I was thrown out and - after we had two very close plays, one at the plate that cost us a run, then in the ninth inning, we were up a run and - actually, we were tied - stolen base - looked out to me. They called him safe. And I knew at that point, that our guys were tired of being abused with what they thought by the umpires. So I went out, and I knew I wasn't coming back until I was thrown out. And this was my first year as a manager and these guys wanted to see, you know, was I going to stand up for them?
And so eventually, the umpire threw me out, and I went back up into my office. And after the game, my hitting coach came through and asked if he could have a quick word. And John Mabry is the hitting coach. He was actually my coach on that youth team the first year too. And John asked - he said - he goes, do you mind if I ask what you said to the umpire? And I said, you know, I don't remember exactly, John, but, you know, I was pretty mad. And so I think he just got tired of it. And he goes, well, did you swear at him? And I said, no, I really don't think I did. And he goes, well, then, why'd he kick you out? And I said, well, he told me that he got - he was just kind of tired of me being out there.
MATHENY: So John said, let me get this straight. You just got kicked out of a Major League Baseball game for loitering? And I said, I guess that's how it goes, yeah.
Mike Matheny is the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. His book is "The Matheny Manifesto." Stay with us. Coming up, I'll ask him when and why it's OK for a pitcher to intentionally throw at a batter. And he'll tell us about what it was like when he took a fastball to the jaw. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, who spent 13 years as a catcher in the big leagues where he was known as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, winning four Gold Glove Awards. He's also known for laying down the law to parents who put too much pressure on their kids in youth sports. He has a new book called "The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager's Views On Success In Sports And Life."
One of the things that happens in big league baseball is there are times when it's considered acceptable for a pitcher to deliberately throw at and hit another batter, maybe when one of your teammates has been hit by the opposing pitcher, maybe when a batter has sort of violated the rules of etiquette by showing up your pitcher or, you know, strutting around the bases after a home run. And I - one thing that occurred to me as I read about these things is, you know, I know that you felt that retaliation is never acceptable in youth ball, and you write about a couple of cases in the book where that just should not happen in youth baseball. Why is it OK among grown-ups to do that - to hit somebody in response to something happening in the game?
MATHENY: Oh, boy. This is a tough topic. And, you know, I do have my own personal beliefs on where I stand. It is against the rules. It's very clear, and it comes back also to the conversation we just had about being able to stand up for your players and making sure that they're being protected, and this is on the physical side. But I'm glad you started with this not being something that's acceptable at the youth level. I don't - I just truly don't believe - and why do I think it's acceptable in one place and not the other? And I think, one, comes down to it's our livelihood. And we're talking about the health, potentially lives, and so we have to make sure that we're very careful, you know, not to have anything happen to where somebody's throwing it at somebody else's head. And, I mean, some bad things can happen there.
But there are also - I believe there's rules within the rules of the game. If we were having this conversation after something just happened, I'd just be telling you that, yeah, we like to pitch inside, sometimes it gets away. But there's other times when somebody takes too many liberties, and we've got to make sure that they're uncomfortable with the pitch inside to make sure that our guys are protected. That's a fine line to be walking. It's not something that I have a great answer for you because it is very hypocritical when you start saying that it shouldn't happen at the youth level, but we can allow it at the big-league level. Once people's livelihoods are at stake, and, once again, my job description is figuring out how to defend my guys the best that I can.
DAVIES: You know, I know that's the explanation that people give - I had to protect my guys. But I'm - when I think it through, I think, well, does that really make it any less likely that your guys are going to get hurt if, you know, if you whack their shortstop in the back. Does it, do you think?
MATHENY: It does stop nonsense. And if people are just freely throwing up and in on a player or on a team and they feel there's no negative repercussions, the only way to get it to stop is sometimes do the same thing, and then the umpires will step in, and then you're talking about ejections. You're talking about suspensions. If the umpires don't step in - and they oftentimes do a very good job of starting to smell when something like that's coming along, and they'll jump in. But if it's not and our guys continue to be targets, yeah, it actually does start to slow down the impact that that could have.
DAVIES: You were a catcher, which is really a unique position. There is so much going on. And one of the things you do is call pitches, right? I mean, you decide what pitch you think the pitcher should throw. And big-league pitchers have a lot of options - you know, fastballs, curves and sliders and sinkers. Is that like - almost like composing a piece of music 'cause there's just so many variables - what the pitcher can throw well, what the hitter is vulnerable to.
MATHENY: Yeah. I think that's a great comparison. When everything's going right, it does become like a dance to me. And when you and the pitcher are thinking along the same lines, you had a game plan, a very clear plan early on of how you'd like to start certain hitters and then maybe how you approach them in their third at-bat in the game and you know where you've been, you know where you want to go, and you kind of have an idea of how you're going to get through the middle pitches - that to me was the truest enjoyment I had - and obviously winning, but next to that was being really locked in with the pitcher and in the middle of that dance just knowing what the next step was going to be and you guys, you were just thinking alike. You had that ability to kind of read each other's minds. And when that's working, and they're able to execute each pitch, it's hard to describe how much fun that is.
DAVIES: Yeah, and there are - not to mention, there are a lot of physical demands on you as the catcher, I mean, while you're doing this incredibly intricate, strategic thinking. You know, it's interesting, in football, quarterbacks used to call the plays. And then they got to the point where they would often signal the play in from the sidelines. And nowadays in pro football, I believe quarterbacks actually let the coaches call the signals, and they receive it through a speaker in their helmet. And I'm sure you could do that in baseball. You could figure out a way for the manager to tell the catcher what pitch should be called. Will that ever happen, or does the catcher know something nobody else does?
MATHENY: Yeah, I believe that could happen. I think it would be a tragedy. You know, I look at my situation, and I have one of the best catchers in the history of the game behind the plate, Yadier Molina.
DAVIES: He is, yeah.
MATHENY: And I also know that what is seen behind the plate is completely different from what we see from the side. And even though we have a great seat, maybe 70 to 90 feet away in the dugout and we're on the top step closest to everything that's going on, you can't see the subtle movements. You can't see that this hitter just moved his back foot two inches closer to the plate, or he just scooted up maybe three or four inches trying to get the breaking ball before it breaks. You can't see the late movement. And for some reason today, this guy's fastball's cutting more than it's sinking, so let's capitalize on it, or the curveball is coming out loopy out of his hands, and you can just sense that these hitters timing's right on the curveball. And those sort of things, you just can't sense. It's a sixth sense that happens for the catchers when they're really - when they really have their antenna up. And it really, to me, is part of the enjoyment of the position.
DAVIES: How much talking do you do to a pitcher? I mean, not at a mound conference, but just in the regular course of it.
MATHENY: Not much unless they're really struggling. When they're going well, you just leave them alone. You know, kind of that old thing - when they're having a no-hitter, nobody's allowed talking to them. That's one of those old traditions that still goes on, but when a guy's struggling, you try and walk him through it. Sometimes you're just trying to walk him off the cliff when he doesn't feel like he has his stuff. That's a great part of a catcher's job, and I think a manager and coach can do the same thing - is just find something little to give them to put some hope into them. And a lot of those mound visits that we talked about earlier, that's what it is. You're going out and maybe distracting him little bit and say, hey, you know what you're doing? Your glove's coming up too soon. Just concentrate on relaxing that front arm, and trust your stuff. You've got great stuff. I'm an encourager. I mean, that's just - I believe it's a gift that I have, and I know that - not just baseball players. I think you know somebody needs encouragement if they're breathing. And our guys, regardless of how experienced, regardless of the accolades and the accomplishments - they constantly need that source of encouragement. And so typically when I do have conversations with them, it's encouraging and challenging them all in the same breath.
DAVIES: You know, anybody who watches big league ball will see - for any length of time - will see moments when a foul tip will catch the catcher, you know, in an unprotected part of his shoulder or arm or wrist or square on the mask and think, my God, how does he get up and keep playing? You did this for 13 years, and you got banged up a lot. Did you ever get to the point where you felt fear back there?
MATHENY: No, never really did. And I think there's a sick part of catchers that they don't mind having all of those bruises, and that's almost a badge of honor. And yeah, I watched Yadier Molina take a couple in the inner thigh, which - that's a bad spot. There's a couple other really bad spots, too, we don't even need to mention.
But it's just part of the position, and typically catchers have kind of been able to kind of figure out a way to mask whatever that pain is to where they don't even acknowledge it during the game. And there's so many nicks and bruises that people don't even see because the catcher doesn't blink. He just wear - he wears it. He plays it off and keeps going with the game. And you go inside after the game, and guys start stripping down and, you know, they're in their shorts and you realize how many foul balls they took, and it's a demanding position when it comes to that side.
DAVIES: Mike Matheny is the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and his new book is called "The Matheny Manifesto." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Mike Matheny. He's the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and a 13-year catcher in the big leagues. And he has a book in part about his experience managing youth baseball and how he dealt with kids and parents. It's called "The Matheny Manifesto."
You had a horrible experience as a hitter in 1998 when you were with the Brewers playing the Pirates. Rich Loiselle - is that who the pitcher was?
MATHENY: That's right.
DAVIES: Tell us what happened.
MATHENY: The backstory to this is I was really struggling hitting, like I was the majority of my career. And I had made an agreement with my manager that every time I struck out on a breaking ball, I owed him of sleeve of golf balls. And I ended up probably buying that man a truck full of golf balls.
MATHENY: But I was determined to stay in there. I wasn't seeing the breaking ball well. I never really did.
DAVIES: Stay in there meaning not flinch back when the ball's coming at you and it might break over the plate?
MATHENY: Correct 'cause most breaking balls, if they're going to be a pitch that you can hit as a curveball, it's going to start at you for the most part. And so just staying in there is not flinching and being prepared if it does break over the plate, that you can still swing. And so it was in the late innings. I believe we were down a runner, tied, and I knew I needed to stay in there. This guy threw really hard, but he also had a good breaking ball, and I had a breaking ball weakness. So as I was staying in there and I thought this ball was going to break, it didn't. And it hit me square in the jaw. It was amazing how much I bled. I was very fortunate, though. It hit me in a really good spot. A little bit higher, it would've hit my orbital bone. A little lower, it would have probably broken my jaw. Fortunately, it just broke some teeth. And they pulled me out of the game 'cause I couldn't stop bleeding and got stitched up and was actually able to play the next night. But, you know, at that particular time on that particular team, our manager really appreciated the toughness of being able to jump back in there and play that next night.
DAVIES: You're leaving out a part of the story. What did you do when you got hit?
MATHENY: Well, the reason people bring this story up a lot is 'cause I just kind of stood there. They wondered why I didn't fall down. And I don't have an answer. I have no idea why. I had a mixture of emotions. I was concerned 'cause I was bleeding so much. And I was mad. I never liked to get hit. I knew it wasn't intentional at that particular point of the game, but it didn't make any difference. I was mad nonetheless. And then I was confused of whether I should be able - should I start getting off the field or am I going to pass out from lack of blood? So I just kind of stood there, and I looked at the pitcher, and, you know, the teeth and the blood and that sort of stuff kind of did what it did and made my way off the field.
DAVIES: Yeah, well, I've seen the video of it and what - you know, you can see the umpire and the catcher immediately jump up and start waving for the trainers. And you kind of look there for a minute as if you were waiting for a bus and then spit a pint of blood onto the field. It's pretty dramatic.
DAVIES: You had four great years with the Cardinals - made the playoffs, played in a World Series. One of the things you were known for was throwing out base runners. Is there a trick to that? What made you really good at that?
MATHENY: You know, that was something I really enjoyed doing is being able to shut down the running game. And it's just quickness and accuracy. I was a thrower. I played a lot of football. I was quarterback. It was something that I built up over time. And the craft of being able to get rid of a ball - you know, for a catcher, I mean, really measured on your time - the time it hits your glove and then the time it takes to get 127 feet, 3 and three-eighths inches away to second base. Typically, you need to be under two seconds to do that. And that was something that I worked hard at. I knew that I wasn't an offensive player. I didn't hit well. So I needed to catch well. I needed to manage a pitching staff well. And I needed to be able to throw out base runners.
DAVIES: Tell us about how your career ended.
MATHENY: You know, I was fortunate that - you know, my career almost ended a couple of times before I even got to St. Louis. I was released twice - once by the Brewers, once by the Blue Jays - and I thought my career was over before it ever had really begun. But over a series of years, another badge of honor that catchers really took a lot of pride in before was blocking the plate to where you hold the ball and just lay in front of the plate so the runner will run into you - a lot of times, a violent collision. And if you come up with a ball and you hold onto it without dropping it, that's success. And it happened a lot. There was one season I probably had six of those. And every time I'd have a play like that, we never kept our helmet or mask on. We threw them off. That was just kind of the way we were taught as well.
And, you know, every time it would be some sort of concussion, which was just a very loose term used. And going back through the archives and going back through the records, there were sometimes - somewhere between 25 and 30 concussions that we - that they had put on me for whatever - either, you know, getting hit by a ball or from collisions at the plate - and then finally, my last year of my career, a series of foul tips, which don't hurt at all. I never before had any acknowledgement of it. It's the best place to be hit, to be honest with you.
DAVIES: Well, you got hit in the mask as opposed to one of your limbs?
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.
MATHENY: Right, when it hit off the mask. And apparently, the more concussions you have, the more you are susceptible to having another concussion with less impact. And so apparently what had happened was I'd had so many collisions at the plate that now I was at the point where even a foul ball would give me a concussion. And I had a matter of four foul balls in about three games that hit me straight in the mask. And then it was a multiple concussion syndrome that took me out of the game.
DAVIES: And you were really hurt for months, right? I mean, you were confused at times?
MATHENY: Oh, it was the scariest 18 months of my life when - I felt like I could play through anything and took a lot of pride in playing with broken this or that, but this was different. I knew that my brain was not right. And what really caught my attention was the fact that I couldn't think. I couldn't remember. This is right in the middle of the game. So this is after I'd taken a couple foul balls to the mask, and I'd never had any repercussions from that over 20 years of catching. But what really caught my attention - I went out and talked to one of my pitchers. I told him what pitch I needed him to throw, and by the time I got back behind the plate, I completely forget what I said. And it was to the point where I was having trouble seeing. I was having trouble reacting. My fine motor skills were giving me difficulty to where I had no chance as I was hitting and very difficult to even catch up with catching a ball.
The training staff - medical people finally caught on, and they knew I was putting myself at danger, and so then they sent me off for some testing. And then the next 18 months, after they put me on the disabled list, just some weird things. I drove off with the gas nozzle in my car three times in one month. I couldn't multitask at all. Every time I'd drive somewhere, I'd have to call my wife and ask her where I was going. And it was very, very scary to the point that I knew I had some brain damage. And I think that's something that baseball, football and hockey are all doing a much better job - even soccer - of acknowledging the fact that a concussion is not this mild thing. It's a brain injury. It's trauma to the brain, and we better be real careful with those.
DAVIES: Well, Mike Matheny, there are lot of National League fans that would not want me to wish you a good season, but I'm going to say I've enjoyed it. Thanks a lot and have a great year with the Cardinals.
MATHENY: Dave, thank you very much.
DAVIES: Mike Matheny is the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, who are off to a great start this season. His book is "The Matheny Manifesto." Coming up, David Bianculli has an appreciation of David Letterman, who ends his 33-year late night run this month. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.